Removing the oversight roadblock

In the research I've been doing over the past year on organizational changein the procurement system, one question I asked government contracting officialswas: What were the most unpopular rules or regulations among contractingprofessionals in the years before procurement reform?

One answer dominated: The high number of reviews and sign-offs people atthe working levels needed to go through before they could actually do something.People said they were frustrated that reviews slowed down the process, madetheir jobs more cumbersome and added little value. Some expressed angerat the lack of trust the reviews insinuated.

As part of reinventing government, reviews and sign-offs are down, andnot just in procurement. In most parts of government, dollar thresholdshave risen for contract actions that trigger various reviews. In a numberof cases — as with the Commerce Department's Concept of Operations procurementmethod, which has been used successfully in buying information technology— decisions are made by cross-functional teams that before would have hadto proceed first across stove-pipes and then up the hierarchy.

None of this means that hierarchical oversight is a thing of the past, ofcourse; nor should it be. When large amounts of money are being committed,a bunch of brains should get involved. People further up the hierarchy canadd value through their wider experience and broader view.

One problem is that traditional forms of review fail to take advantage ofthe value higher-ups can offer. They often occur late in the game, whenpeople are itching to move forward and when approaches already have beendeveloped to which people lower down have become committed. Given how faralong the process is by the time actions appear for review, those submittingplans typically know so much more than the higher-ups that reviewers sometimesare reduced to displaying power as a substitute for displaying insight.

Recently, I talked about the frustrations working-level folks had with reviewswith Dan Mehney, the personable, innovative chief contracting official atthe Army's Tank and Automotive Command outside Detroit. He told me aboutan innovation in oversight that his deputy, Tom Myers, pioneered when Myersassumed his current position in 1995. That innovation has relevance to anyorganization in government that has hierarchical reviews as part of itsstandard operating procedures — pretty much any organization in government,period. (Characteristically for a good manager, Mehney didn't take creditfor the change himself but spontaneously gave it to somebody else.)

What Myers did was to replace something called the Solicitation Board witha new Business Strategy Board. This was more than a name change. Peoplehad appeared before the old Solicitation Board before a request for proposalsthat was more than a dollar threshold was to hit the street.

By contrast, the new Business Strategy Board plays its role at the beginningof the solicitation process, not the end. Its job is not to review documentsthat those working on the contract think are ready to go and critique them.

Its job is to give those folks advice before they have cast anything in stone regarding strategies they might follow to maximize the value the acquisition eventually will yield the Army. People are required to appear at least once in front of the board, but they decide when.

"Remember, the board's purpose is to be an advisory and a resource rather than a checker," an internal instruction notes. "So schedule a board [meeting] when it can be most useful to you."

Although officials in charge of acquisitions valued at more than certain dollar thresholds still must have their general acquisition plans approved via an Army-headquarters developed hierarchy, working-level folks in Detroit no longer routinely need to go to a local board to get their final solicitation reviewed. Typically, they are empowered to work out issues raised by the Business Strategy Board.

In its role at the beginning of the process, the Business Strategy Board has made suggestions such as limiting the number of evaluation criteria, considering multiple awards and removing restrictive design specifications.

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